HONOLULU — Lawyers representing two Native Hawaiian men don’t dispute they brutally assaulted a white man who purchased a house in their remote village on the island of Maui.
They acknowledged the 2014 attack was wrong, but they said it wasn’t a hate crime, as U.S. prosecutors allege.
Trial began Tuesday for Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr., who are charged with one federal count each of a hate crime.
Alo-Kaonohi punched and kicked Christopher Kunzelman and Aki hit him with a shovel when Kunzelman tried to fix up the house he purchased in Kahakuloa village, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Thomas told the jury.
Alo-Kaonohi dragged his finger down Kunzelman’s face and said his skin was the wrong color, Thomas said.
The attack, which left Kunzelman with injuries including a concussion, two broken ribs and head and abdominal trauma, never would have happened if it weren’t for his race, Thomas said.
It wasn’t Kunzelman’s race that sparked the attack, attorneys for the men said, blaming their actions on his entitled and disrespectful attitude.
The assault on Kunzelman is “hard to stomach,” said Craig Jerome, one of Alo-Kaonohi’s federal defenders. The attack was provoked by a belief that Kunzelman didn’t have a valid easement to the property and because he cut chains on village gates, Jerome said.
The altercation escalated when the men realized Kunzelman had a gun, Jerome said.
Kaonohi pleaded no contest to felony assault in state court in July 2019 in the case and was sentenced to probation. The trial in U.S. District Court in Honolulu is only to determine if they are guilty of a hate crime. They face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Footage of the attack from cameras on Kunzelman’s vehicle don’t show that Alo-Kaonohi uttered any racial terms or slurs, Jerome said.
Aki later told police Kunzelman was acting like a “typical haole,” Thomas said.
Haole, a Hawaiian word with meanings that include foreign and white person, is central to the case, which highlights multicultural Hawaii’s nuanced and complicated relationship with race.
An enraged Alo-Kaonohi called Kunzelman “brah,” “buddy,” and various other terms attached to expletives, Jerome said: “”But he never calls him a haole, not once.”
Aki didn’t use the word haole in a pejorative or hateful way, Jerome said.
“It’s not a hate crime to assault somebody and in the course of it, use the word haole,” said Aki’s court-appointed attorney, Lynn Panagakos, noting that Aki is both part-Hawaiian and part-haole.
“Haole has multiple meanings depending on the context,” she said. “It’s an accepted word.”
Kunzelman testified Tuesday that he and his wife decided to move to Maui from Scottsdale, Arizona, after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis because she loved the island.
“It’s just serene and beautiful,” he said.
They purchased the four-bedroom oceanfront house after seeing a listing for it online, he said, and that he went to Maui first to renovate the house for his wife and their three daughters.
Kunzelman said he decided to take two pistols to Maui after hearing that a contractor he hired to do mold remediation had been assaulted when he showed up and after hearing his realtor say that the close-knit community of Native Hawaiians had a problem with white people.
Kunzelman said he and his family never got to live in the Maui house and now reside in Puerto Rico.
He was expected to continue testifying Tuesday and possibly Wednesday.